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Community based organisations give villagers power

[Iraq] Banale children on the bridge, built with help from REACH, on their way to secondary school in Barsmaq. The walk takes an hour. IRIN
Banale children on the bridge built with help from REACH on their way to school in Barsmaq.
Working mainly with funds from the UK-based Department for International and Development (DFID), the local Kurdish NGO REACH has completed 114 projects in northern Iraq in the last two years. It has helped small communities build dams and bridges and install generators, as well as teaching others how manure can be used to create methane gas for cooking and light. For REACH manager Dana Hasan Mohamed, though, engineering projects are only the first, and in many ways the less important half of reconstructing Iraqi society. "Every time Iraq's new government builds another building and signs another contract with a foreign company, we should remember that Saddam Hussein was good at that too," he told IRIN at REACH's headquarters in the northern governorate of Sulaymaniyah. "In the 80s, we had the best medical infrastructure in the region, but we also had civilian officials with the mentality of army officers, and people who had never been taught to take the initiative." It is to change that, to encourage the formation of a working civil society, that REACH always combines its building projects with the creation of what it calls Community-Based Organisations (CBOs). It is common practice in much humanitarian work today that communities should be involved in projects destined for them: a family that has built its house with donated materials, the argument goes, is more likely to feel responsible for it than one given the keys to a completed building. But while the end of an NGO's project usually spells the end of the community project linked to it, it is at this point, ideally, that the CBO comes into its own. In Barsmaq, for instance, a small village an hour east of Sulaymaniyah in the sub-district of Mawat, a simple REACH-assisted project to install a generator has led to a wholesale reworking of the community's hierarchy. Before 2002, when villagers provided 35 percent of the funds needed to buy the generator, Barsmaq's relations with local officialdom were the sole domain of the over-worked village headman Sherzad Aziz Rasul. "I just didn't have time to do everything the village needed," Rasul told IRIN in Barsmaq. "I now realise that I know the village's needs much less well than I thought." For Sazgar Ahmed Mohamed, one of the three women members of Barsmaq's seven-strong CBO, the new committee has not just brought the village closer together. It has also strengthened its dealings with the local authorities. "More heads make it easier to clarify the village's needs," she told IRIN. "But it also means that if Mr Sherzad isn't here when an NGO or local authority official drops in, I or another member of the CBO can give all the information they need." In the past, Rasul paid for trips to the government offices in Sulaymaniyah out of his own pocket. Now, following a suggestion from REACH staff to set up a village kitty, he or other CBO members can go more frequently. Barsmaq's new activism has resulted in one particularly striking victory. At a time when the local authorities seem increasingly to be neglecting rural education, it managed to dissuade the head of Sulaymaniyah's Directorate of Education from transferring the village school's older pupils to secondary school in Mawat. "I like to think it was the women here who won her over," said the headman's sister Jiyan Aziz Rasul, also a member of the CBO. "There are 150 school children here from 10 surrounding villages. Many families would not allow the girls to travel to Mawat." "From the beginning, it was clear Barsmaq's CBO was likely to be successful," REACH project monitor, Hasan Jafar Abdulrahman, told IRIN. "The villagers are open-minded, and the village has none of the social problems you see elsewhere." Five miles down the road in Banalé, the CBO which helped REACH construct a footbridge over the river that runs through the village seems to be fighting a losing battle to hold the community together. "Of the seven members of the original CBO, only three are left," explained villager Nuqman Abdulrahman Rashid. "The others have moved to Sulaymaniyah," he told IRIN. Like others in Banalé, he complained that a local government decision last winter to cut down on meat exports to Iran - part of an effort to reduce prices within Iraq - had made animal husbandry unprofitable. Villagers agreed with the suggestion of REACH's Hasan Jafar Abdulrahman, that they should choose new CBO members to replace those who had left. But they remained pessimistic. Within a year or two, they predicted, barely 10 families out of 30 were likely still to be living in the village. Abdulrahman acknowledged that it was far easier to build a bridge than to strengthen the community. Overall, though, he believed the CBOs were a success. "Of the 62 CBOs I have overseen in Sulaymaniyah governorate, around 60 percent have worked well or very well," he maintained. "Only 10 percent have been a complete failure," he added.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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